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Steam On The Alley “L”

early steam train on Chicago's L

A northbound train pauses at the Indiana Avenue station in this view looking east along an unpaved 40th Street. Note the surface track of the Chicago Junction Railway. (click image to enlarge)

Written by Bruce G. Moffat     

When Chicago’s first two elevated railroad companies opened for business in the early 1890's, electric traction was still considered a somewhat less than reliable technology for rapid transit applications. As a result, the Chicago & South Side Rapid Transit Railroad Company, popularly known as the Alley “L”, purchased 46 Forney-type (0-4-4T wheel arrangement) steam locomotives from the Baldwin Locomotive Works. This locomotive type was named for its designer, Matthias N. Forney, and saw wide use in a variety of environments ranging from logging to commuter service. In selecting the Forney design, the company was able to take advantage of the experience of the Manhattan Elevated, which had been using that type for many years. Some of the Manhattan’s staff even relocated to Chicago to work for the new company.

steam locomotive running "backward"

Running “tender first,” #2 is seen pulling a southbound train at an unknown location. Elevated Forney’s were considered “double-ended” locomotives because they were intended to operate as much in forward as reverse (the South Side’s terminals were stub-ended affairs).   (click image to enlarge)

Although similar to the Manhattan’s locomotives, those delivered to the South Side company were built to heavier standards necessitated by a more demanding set of performance requirements. Changes included use of a heavy single-piece wrought iron frame (cracked frames were a common problem on the New York engines), larger fireboxes, and the ability to burn various grades of coal or coke. They were expected to maintain an average speed of 15 miles per hour, including stops, while hauling a fully loaded five-car train. This was about 3½ miles per hour faster than in New York and was made difficult by the spacing of stations as close as a quarter-mile in some places.

To help achieve this demanding performance standard, all but the last engine were built to the Vauclain four-cylinder compound design. Locomotives #1-45 were delivered during 1892. The last locomotive (#46) was built to an experimental two-cylinder cross-compound design and did not arrive on the property until 1893.

Regular service began on June 6,1892, from a single-track downtown terminal located at Congress Street on the southern fringe of downtown. The terminal was built above Holden Court – a glorified alley just east of State Street - and was barely adequate to meet the company’s needs.

The initial south terminal was at 39th Street where a coaling tower and water plug had been placed along with a small temporary repair facility (maintenance work was later shifted to the 61st yard where more space was available).

The little locomotives were kept quite busy. Service was provided on an around-the-clock basis with intervals ranging from as close as every 2½ minutes during rush hours to every 20 minutes during the “owl” period (Midnight to 5:00am).

Service was extended incrementally southward as the structure and stations were completed. On May 12, 1893, service was extended into Jackson Park, site of that year’s Worlds’ Columbian Exposition. After the fair’s closure, service was cut back to the edge of the park at 63rd Street and Stony Island Avenue.

Chicago "L" steam engine

South Side #46 was the last steam engine built for the company and was delivered with an experimental cross-compound cylinder design during 1893. (click image to enlarge)

Forney Steamer on the "L"

Locomotive #41 and crew pose for the company photographer on the structure above 63rd Street just east of Cottage Grove Avenue (about 1894). The Washington Park race track can be discerned in the background. The residential real estate boom had yet to fully consume reach this corner of the south side even though service was frequent and cost only a nickel. (click image to enlarge)

On October 18, 1897, train service was extended into the heart of Chicago’s downtown district using the tracks of the just-built and now-famous Loop Elevated structure. Formally known as the Union Loop, this two mile-long double track line was owned by the Union Elevated Railroad Company. The Loop also carried trains belonging to the city’s other “L” companies: the Lake Street Elevated Railroad (which had converted to electric traction in 1896 after just three years of steam operation) and the Metropolitan West Side Elevated (opened as an electric railroad in 1895). In 1900, trains of the Northwestern Elevated Railroad were added to the mix. Union Elevated never operated any trains of its own.

Compared to the Lake Street and Metropolitan, the Alley “L” did not hurry to electrify, thereby becoming the only company to operate steam locomotives on the Loop. Electrification was on the agenda, however, and in early 1897 they solicited proposals to do just that. The company eventually awarded a contract to Frank Julian Sprague to motorize the company’s existing passenger cars using his revolutionary, but as-yet untested, multiple unit control system. Known as M.U. and used throughout the world today, his invention allowed a single person in the head car to control the motors in all motorized cars in the train (prior to this installation, the motorman controlled only the motors in the head car and all other cars in the train consisted of trailers - this severely limited train performance and train length).

South Side Elevated Railroad steamer

A #35 pulling a southbound train. The locomotive has been relettered for the South Side Elevated Railroad, which had succeeded the original Chicago & South Side Rapid Transit in January 1897. (click image to enlarge)

Specifications – Locomotives 1-45

Builder: Baldwin Locomotive Works, 1892

  • Cylinders, Vauclain, four-cylinder type 9 in. and 15 in. x 16 in.

  • Driving Wheels/Wheel Base 42 in./5 ft.

  • Truck Wheels 26 in.

  • Total Wheel Base 16 ft. 4 in.

  • Boiler Diameter/Length 46 in./116 - 15/16 in.

  • Firebox 63½ x 43¼ in.

  • Tank Capacity 750 gallons

  • Weight 58,000 lbs.

  • Grate Area 19 sq. ft.

Electrification would also result in a dramatic reduction in crewing and maintenance costs compared to steam power.

On April 15, 1898, the first electrically powered run was made over the entire line. Five days later the first 20 cars were placed in service (about 4 trains), thereby beginning the gradual phase-out of steam power. The conversion process was completed on July 27, 1898.


Chicago's Forney retired in Cuba

Former South Side #42 on display in Tocajo, Cuba. (photo by Jeff Wien)

(click image to enlarge)


The now displaced locomotives were consigned to equipment brokers and were scattered among a wide range of industrial and logging concerns as well as regular railroads in need of some light duty power for one purpose or another.

Only one of the company’s locomotives has managed to survive to the present day. Number 42 survives as a static display, albeit in a heavily modified condition at Tocajo (Holguin province), Cuba.

Click here to view this highly detailed drawing full size
This side elevation appeared in a railroad industry publication in late 1892.

(click image to enlarge)

Written by Bruce G. Moffat   


Photo of #42 in Cuba by Jeff Wien.  All other images from the Bruce G. Moffat collection.


the end


About the author:

Bruce G. Moffat is a life-long Chicago resident with a deep interest in Chicago Area traction. Past president of Central Electric Railfans' Association. He has authored several hard cover books including one the narrow gauge Chicago Tunnel Company, and on the formative decades of Chicago's rapid transit system, better known as The"L" (go to for ordering details or see below). Bruce has also written numerous magazine articles on traction subjects. He works in the transit field and formerly served as a rail route manager for the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA).


click to enlarge

The "L"
by Bruce G. Moffat.
Explores the development of Chicago's Rapid Transit system from 1888 to1932.  307 pages. hard cover.


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